Wait…What Just Happened? : Coach’s Challenge

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You may have tuned into the Texans at Lions game on Thanksgiving and witnessed the enforcement of one of the weirder rules that exists in the NFL these days involving the coach’s challenge.

On the play in question, Texans running back Justin Forsett was clearly down – his elbow and knee both touching the field – but the whistle never blew, which meant the play was still live. Kudos to Forsett, who had the awareness to get up and keep running…all 81 yards to score a touchdown.

Under normal circumstances, this play would have been reviewed and called back. There’s no way that call would have stood. There are a number of plays that are automatically reviewed by the Replay Official. They include:

  • all scoring plays
  • interceptions
  • fumbles
  • backward passes that are recovered by an opponent or go out of bounds through an opponent’s end zone
  • muffed scrimmage kicks recovered by the kicking team
  • any questionable plays after the two-minute warning of each half
  • any questionable plays throughout any overtime period

So, here’s the sequence of normal events:

1. A play is made that results in a touchdown.

2. The scoring play is reviewed upstairs because all scoring plays are reviewed to be sure everything was kosher and the play actually resulted in the score awarded (feet in-bounds, control of the ball, etc).

But that’s not what happened on Thursday. Seeing that the play was ruled a touchdown, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz (understandably) flipped and threw the red coaches challenge flag. (Coaches get two challenges per game. If they are wrong about the play in question, they are charged one time out. If they are right, the call is reversed. If they are right both times, they earn an extra challenge.) However, a scoring play is among the plays that are automatically reviewed by the Replay Official. That means that it is NOT able to be challenged by a coach, and there is a hefty penalty for throwing the challenge flag anyway: a 15 yard penalty, AND the play is no longer reviewable. The ruling on the field stands. This is what happened to Jim Schwartz on Thanksgiving.

1. Justin Forsett’s play was ruled a touchdown.

2. Jim Schwartz believed that Forsett was down 81 yards ago and throws the challenge flag.

3. Since the play would have been reviewed anyway and the gesture of throwing the challenge flag is seen as a delay of game tactic, a 15 yard penalty was enforced and the play was rendered unreviewable. The ruling on the field stood, even though it was clearly wrong.

So the Texans earned a touchdown that would have been overturned, and went on to win 34-31 in overtime. It stands to reason that if the call had been reversed, the outcome of the game would have been very different.

It’s a pretty harsh rule, admittedly. So much so that the NFL came out and said they’re going to change it in the off-season, or potentially sooner. I think everyone is in agreement that it’s a good idea.